Mariner's Mismatched Mental Maps

That is to say when the map in the mariners head doesn’t match geography.

For example when I worked on the Aleutian freighters the Aleutian Islands were referred to as “Out West”. However mariners who work for the Alaska Ferry System in Southeast Alaska call the same area “up north”

The Aleutian run the Alaska Ferry Tustemena was on is known to be much rougher than the SE Alaska runs. In Mariner “folk meteorology” higher latitudes are associated with rougher weather. So it’s considered to be “up north”.

If a mariner works in an area the names will come into sharper focus out of necessity.

I found it odd that Mainers call the direction of the Canadian maritime provinces up to the north east “down east” until it was explained that it was a downwind sail.


Southernmost town in SE AK is Ketchikan, at 55.3422° N, 131.6461° W

Adak is Southernmost island in the Chain at 51°53′0″N 176°38′42″W

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Norwegian fishermen called the entire area of the North Atlantic to the west of Shetland “Vestom Søylå” (I.e anything to the west of Muckle Flugga Lighthouse at the northern tip of Shetland)

During my last year at Maritime School (1968-69) we joined our teacher on an 80’ fishing boat that needed compass adjustment. When we came on board the compass was pointing mostly at the steel mast and winch and the adjusting magnets were missing.

On being asked the Skipper explained that they had encounter bad weather “Vestom Søylå” and the “doors” holding the magnets had opened up, spilling the magnets. He brought them in a bag.

When asked how he managed to get home he explained that they had headed generally east until they saw Shetland, then followed the coast to get around “Søylå”.
From there they just headed east again until the Norwegian coast got into sight.
Final statement; “I did navigate under protest and we did have the echo sounder”.

Other example from the Norwegian fishing fleet is “Smutthullet”. A part of the Norwegian/Barents Sea that is outside any EEZ.

PS> I believe there is a similar area in the Berings Sea that probably have names in English, Russian and Japanese??

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I was an AB at the time but I was surprised the first time I heard the Panama Canal Pilots refer to the transit as “northbound” and “southbound” Seems that Pacific and Atlantic are east and west of each other, not north and south. The Canal does run N/S


The Atlantic side is actually west of the Pacific side.


I bet it’d be a particularly rich topic to investigate with a traditional Polynesian navigator, if you happened to find one. Everything by stars versus marks on the hull, “seamarks,” and encyclopedic memory; no other instruments or charts.

On the other hand, the way we talk about places is distinct from the way we talk about direction. A person can come from “back east,” or “up north,” or “down under”; but but we’d never say something like: when you see Muckle Flugga Light, go downwards until you see Buchaness Light.

These places that reference direction reflect our consciousness that we have a cultural orientation about what places are more important than where we are talking about. They tell us which way our cultural compass in pointing. “Back East” is where the powerful established cities are and the capitals, if you are a North American. “Up North,” is remote from and forgotten about by the southern population centres. “Down Under” emphasizes how remote Australia is from Europe. All those turns of phrase show us where the cultural compass points. I still call it back east, even though I’ve spent very little time there, have no family there, and no recent ancestors lived there, and I kinda resent seeing the New York skyline in every single movie and television show, even the ones that are filmed in Vancouver.

But the cultural compass isn’t a good way to give directions. We either give them relative to the person or ship (“Turn right where the dead horse used to be,” “or turn a bit more to starboard, kiddo”) or relative to a chart that we can agree on and a compass direction.

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You’re right of course, our language reflects how we view the world, consider the T-O map. Or the word orientation itself, comes from orient which means east.

Europe and Africa with Asia at the top.


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I never saw that one before, that’s really interesting. I always think of the Maadaba mosaic, from an orthodox church in Jordan. The Med is below Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea is centre.

Maps may not be the territory, but they’re really important to us, psychologically. Have you read The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey? Its about people who steal maps, sometimes for profit, sometimes out of a need to have them. Cartokleptomania, I guess. I get it: I never throw away a brochure if it has a map in it, and I hate cutting up old charts for gaskets: I always cut the featureless parts first.

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Cutting up old charts for gaskets?!? Is that accepted engineering practice?



A “T-O” map made with modern cartography

Gaskets and stencils, yes.

Don’t look at me like that, I all ready feel guilty.


In Honolulu, Oahu: North=Mauka=Mountain ward, South=Makai=Seaward, East=Diamond Head, West=Eva